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Employer Tactics in Ducking Back Wage Claims Now Before Supreme Court

The AFL-CIO has filed a friend of the court brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which an employer is attempting to avoid paying its workers back wages. The case centers on a Pennsylvania nurse, Laura Symczyk, Genesis Healthcare Corp. and methods employers are using to get around paying wages due under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

In December 2009, Symczyk filed suit in federal court alleging Genesis had failed to pay her and other employees for time actually worked during what were supposed to be scheduled meal breaks, payment that is required by the FLSA. She filed suit on behalf of herself and “similarly situated” workers.

But unlike class-action suits for other employment claims in which workers who are part of the “class” are automatically included unless they opt out, FLSA suits require workers to opt in if they wish to be part of the action. Employers, says AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel Matt Ginsburg, are using the opt-in requirement to seek to limit their liability.

Employers have sought to take advantage of the FLSA’s opt-in requirement to cheaply rid themselves of group claims for unpaid wages by quickly paying off the plaintiff who files the suit before any other workers have an opportunity to join the case. Employers then argue to the court that the entire case should be dismissed as “moot,” because there no longer is any named plaintiff with an unsatisfied claim before the court.

In the case before the high court, Symczyk refused the offer from Genesis, and the company claimed that by rejecting the settlement offer, she no longer had a valid claim and the case should be dismissed. The federal district court agreed, but the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal and reinstated Symczyk’s suit. Genesis appealed and now the case is before the Supreme Court.

The AFL-CIO brief argues that it would defeat Congress’ purpose in enacting the FLSA to permit employers to moot FLSA collective actions by paying off an individual plaintiff before other similarly situated employees receive notice of the lawsuit and an opportunity to join the case and receive compensation for their unpaid wages.

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